With the second drowning at the beach in less than a year, Mayor George Proto called a special meeting of Town Council to get a status update. Town Manager Brent Manuel reported that staff was able to put in place a ‘boat free zone’, using a floating barrier.A set of twelve signs reading “CAUTION. Approaching DEEP WATER” have been placed across the beach. The signs are
in English and Spanish. Although the boat exclusion zone only stretches from the pier to Monroe, staff will be looking at getting permits to extend it further down the beach. Manuel said there will be some gaps in the zone to allow for personal water craft or smaller boats to pass through.
“It is a boat exclusionary zone, not a swim area,” said Mayor Proto. “The buoys will have language to say that it is a swimming area.”
“Yes. But there is nothing to preclude someone from swimming outside that boundary,” added Manuel.
“Are you going to talk about the drowning?” asked a member of the audience (new to town, the Mirror was unable to acquire the names).
“This is not a public hearing. We don’t normally allow questions from the audience,” responded Proto.
“You’re not going to discuss the drowning at all? That’s why we came,” she asked. “Lifeguards? Are you going to get lifeguards?”
“You may submit your questions in writing and we will respond to them,” said Proto.
“So the only way for us to voice our opinions is through writing?”
“Yes,” said Proto. “There are other times, when you can discuss other topics.”
“There will be a public hearing on this topic?” asked the audience member.
“You can submit your questions in writing,” said Proto.
“If I have a petition, who do I give it to?”
“Just see me after the meeting,” said Proto. “See me after the meeting.”
As these members got up to exit the room, Debbie Bender accosted the mayor, “If you don’t let us speak, I’m calling all three TV stations tomorrow. Try me. That beach is dangerous. You all knew it, and you did nothing about it. Every kid that has drowned has been a minority—had it been a pretty little white girl from a prominent family, you would have done something then.”
After Bender left, Councilman Godwin addressed the Mayor, “What exactly are we trying to do with this boat exclusionary zone?”
“Do you want to take that?” Proto asked Manuel.
“I can only speak to what it was designed to do,” said Manuel.
“Boat exclusion zone? What we have is a drowning problem. What other steps are we going to take to provide more protection?” asked Councilman Wendell. “We can put out a line, but that will just attract teen boys to it, give them something to hang onto. If it’s not monitored, well we have talked about life guards, but we read in the paper that the Town’s main concern is the cost. Did you actually get an estimate of what the cost is?”
“Not to my knowledge,” answered Manuel.
“Signs, we need to mention the drop-off and the dangerous currents. I’d like to have staff work up the cost. We can hire people to have exercise classes and sand castle contests, we might want to consider hiring some lifeguards,” said Wendell.
“Why do we have this boat exclusionary zone, this thing to keep boats out? It says nothing about drowning. Was the drowning caused by a boat?” asked Godwin.
Sambo Brown added, “Lifeguards have to be certified, and have to be there when the beach is open. We have a lot more people on the beach now.”
“If we say the cost is prohibitive, how long would it take to get some quantitative numbers about just how prohibitive it will actually be?” asked Wendell.
“Frank, I don’t think we can engineer this thing here,” said Proto. “We need to find out which beaches are not protected, and what steps they have taken to provide some form of safety measures.”
“Let’s not kid ourselves. The swim rope, the signs is by no means enough to educate people and warn them of the danger. For many, it is their first time to the beach,” said Wendell.
“We can’t be the helicopter council,” said Councilman Bannon. “We’ve had two tragedies. It is the safest beach on the East Coast. And it’s shark free. We try to do every tiny little thing—it goes on and on. The parents, they are the ones that are responsible for their children. A 16 year old has to make choices in life. Some steal and go to jail. You just can’t be the helicopter council.”
Godwin added, “It bothers me that the public thinks they need to assist us, to tell us what to do. We’re supposed to have the better minds. That’s why they elected us. When we address something like this, staff needs to research every possible angle—when we come to the table, we’ll look good.”
“The beach,” said Wendell. “It is deceiving. It looks so shallow. Because of the dredging, it is a lot closer to the channel, and that much more dangerous. We have a lot more work to do.”
After the meeting, some citizens voiced concerns that Council was still not taking beach safety seriously, that there was more concern about saving money for pet projects rather than preventing more drowning tragedies, and that measures to date were more about protecting them and reducing liability than anything else. The consensus outside the Civic Center was that there was still much more work to be done.